This is the time of year where baseball starts to gain the attention of the sporting world. The World Cup has come and gone, LeBron James and Kawhi Leonard have found new homes, and football has yet to begin.
The top contenders in the American League are starting to separate themselves from the rest of the pack, while the National League heavyweights -- other than the Nationals -- are beginning to make their runs.
With the trade deadline fast approaching, teams are going to engage in an arms race with the hopes of obtaining a player who can vault them to the postseason (and ultimately, to the World Series). Likewise, individual players are poised to push for baseball's most prized awards.
This is how we see the rest of the season shaking out:
The AL West is the Astros' division to lose. As of the All-Star break, the reigning Champions lead the Seattle Mariners by five games. The 'Stros are also eight games up on the Oakland Athletics. Houston features one of the best lineups in baseball, and has two front-line pitchers challenging for the Cy Young: Justin Verlander and Gerrit Cole.
Seattle and Oakland will most likely figure into the playoff race for the remainder of the season, but neither team will ultimately push Houston in the race for AL West divisional supremacy. Houston will comfortably win the division and enter the playoffs as a World Series favorite.
After a slow start to the season, the Cleveland Indians have proven themselves yet again to be the class of the AL Central. Terry Francona's Tribe feature the division's best pitchers (Corey Kluber, Trevor Bauer) and arguably the best one-two punch in baseball with Francisco Lindor and José Ramírez manning the left side of the infield.
Cleveland plays in one of the worst divisions in recent memory. The Kansas City Royals are (as of the All-Star break) currently 41 games below .500. The Chicago White Sox are an impressive 33-62, and the Detroit Tigers are a meager 41-57. The Minnesota Twins -- Cleveland's closest competition -- are 7.5 games back of Cleveland. Barring an unforeseen collapse, the Indians are winning the Central. The only thing left to determine is whether the Indians will be starting the playoffs at home or on the road.
The Boston Red Sox and New York Yankees are playoff locks. Boston currently holds a 4.5 game advantage over the Yankees, but both teams are on pace for 100+ wins. An unfortunate byproduct of the current MLB Postseason format, one of these two juggernauts will see their season come down to one game. Ultimately, the Red Sox will outlast the Bronx Bombers and win the East -- sending the Yanks to the AL Wild Card.
AL Wild Card
The Yankees are essentially guaranteed a playoff berth at this point, and will probably host the Wild Card game. Their opponent will likely be one of two teams: the Mariners or Athletics. Seattle currently has a three-game lead on Oakland. However, some advanced numbers and recent play dictates that the Athletics may hold a slight edge. Seattle, somehow, has a run differential of -2 despite being 19 games over .500. Oakland's +24 run differential isn't substantially better, but one would figure Seattle's luck in one-run games can't continue throughout the entire season.
Despite the numbers and a recent Seattle swoon, I believe the Mariners will claim the second Wild Card spot. A returning Robinson Cano will ultimately be the difference maker for the Mariners.
AL Award Winners
MVP: Mookie Betts
To this point, there are three main candidates for AL MVP: Betts, Mike Trout, and J.D. Martinez. A few nagging injuries have slowed Trout in recent weeks, but he is still neck-and-neck with Betts. Martinez is currently having an incredible season for Boston, continuing the torrid pace he set after being acquired by Arizona last season. In the end, Betts' superior batting average and defensive play will prove too much for Martinez to overcome. Trout, while the undisputed best player in all of baseball, will suffer from not playing on a winner like Betts.
Cy Young: Chris Sale
Between Sale, Severino, Cole, Verlander, Bauer, and Kluber, the AL Cy Young race could wind up being one of the closest in many years. Sale's 10 wins currently trail Severino's 14. However, the Boston lefty is deserving for many reasons. Not only does his 2.23 ERA pace the league, but Sale has a ridiculous 13.116 K/9 rate to this point. He leads AL pitchers with a 5.6 WAR (Severino, 4.9), and is second in WHIP with a 0.899 mark.
Rookie of the Year: Gleyber Torres
This race is still close between Torres and the sensational Shohei Ohtani. Ohtani's UCL troubles could keep him from winning the award. The Japanese pitcher has been great from the mound (4-1, 3.10 ERA) and the plate (7 HR, .283 BA) when available, but his elbow injury may keep him from pitching the rest of the season. Torres is currently batting .294 with 15 HR and 42 RBI. If he stays consistent with that type of production, he will take home the AL ROY.
Manager of the Year: Alex Cora
Both Cora and Aaron Boone have done a tremendous job in their first seasons. Some consideration must also be given to Bob Melvin (Oakland) and Scott Servais (Seattle). With that said, Cora and Boone have been masterful. Cora holds a slight edge due to the fact Boston is on its way to one of the best seasons in franchise history. The team that wins the division will ultimately see their manager win the award, and we believe that to be Cora and the Red Sox.
— For The Win (@ForTheWin) July 18, 2018
The Dodgers started the season 16-26, leading many to wonder if their run atop the NL West was coming to an end. Los Angeles responded by finishing the first half of the season on a 37-17 tear. This led to the Dodgers catapulting the competition into first place in the division. By no means is the division title wrapped up. Arizona is a half game back, Colorado two games back, and San Francisco four games behind (as of the All-Star break).
As of July 18 the Dodgers have officially acquired Manny Machado from the Baltimore Orioles. Machado will immediately fill the hole left by Corey Seager's season-ending injury, and gives the Dodgers' lineup an incredible boost. Without Machado, Los Angeles would have been the favorite to come out of the West. With Machado inserted into the lineup, the Dodgers should be considered the favorite to win the National League pennant.
Don't look now, but the Chicago Cubs quietly have the best record in the NL. After spending much of the season behind the Milwaukee Brewers in the standings, Chicago closed the first half winning 7-of-10 as the Brewers stumbled losing 8-of-10. Chicago has a two-game advantage on the Brewers. Furthermore, numbers suggest they should hold on the rest of the way.
Chicago's +114 run differential leads the NL by a good margin. Kris Bryant, while still having a solid season, hasn't come close to matching the numbers we have grown accustomed to seeing. Javy Báez has picked up the slack for an underachieving offense by leading the Cubs in home runs, RBIs, and hits. Their talent should outlast a competitive Milwaukee squad.
If before the season someone had predicted the Philadelphia Phillies and Atlanta Braves would be the top two teams in the NL East, you would have called them misinformed. While the Nationals, especially Bryce Harper, have struggled, the Phillies and Braves have proven their hot starts to be more than a fluke. Philadelphia currently sits atop the division at 53-42 (with the Braves only 0.5 GB). The Nationals are a manageable 5.5 GB, and the dumpster fires that are the Miami Marlins and New York Mets are both 13.5 games out of first.
The Braves have been buoyed by a top 5 offense, defense, and pitching staff. It will come down to the wire, but Atlanta will stave off challenges from both the Phillies and Nationals.
NL Wild Card
Only nine games separate the top 11 teams in the National League. The only teams seemingly out of playoff contention are the Reds, Marlins, Mets, and Padres. Pittsburgh are a middling team with a lack of short-term promise. They're out. Washington misses Dusty Baker and the MVP formerly known as Bryce Harper. They're toast. St. Louis is a complete mess, bye-bye. San Francisco can't stay healthy and face an uphill battle. Adios, Los Gigantes.
That leaves four teams: Milwaukee, Philadelphia, Arizona, and Colorado. We believe the Brewers are the best team of the bunch. Milwaukee will finish with the top Wild Card position -- and thus claim home-field advantage in the game. The Rockies and Diamondbacks have legitimate shots here, but Colorado's pitching woes and Arizona's Jekyll and Hyde offense will ultimately be their respective downfalls. The surprising Phillies, behind the arm of Aaron Nola, will advance to the postseason as the second Wild Card.
NL MVP: Freddie Freeman
Freeman leads a group that includes Lorenzo Cain, Matt Kemp, Max Muncy and Scooter Gennett. Muncy was a castaway that the Dodgers picked off the scrap pile. A resurgent Kemp has been spectacular for Los Angeles, while Gennett has spearheaded a surprisingly feisty Cincinnati team.
For as great as those three players have been, the front-runners are Freeman and Cain. The metrics love Cain. He ranks ninth in WAR among all position players, and has been a pivotal player for the Brewers. Freeman has been a catalyst for the Braves. He ranks among the top-10 in batting average, on-base percentage , OPS, and hits. The race will come down to the wire, but Freeman will ultimately be named NL MVP.
NL Cy Young: Jacob deGrom
Predictably, Max Scherzer will be in contention for the NL Cy Young at season's end. Joining him will be the Mets' lone bright spot, deGrom, and Philadelphia ace Nola. Thus far, deGrom and Nola have been the two best pitchers in the league. The Mets' ace leads the MLB with a 1.68 ERA and has a 6.0 WAR (fourth-best in baseball). Nola is just behind deGrom with a 5.9 WAR and a 2.30 ERA.
Nola leads the NL with 12 wins and is among the top 10 in WHIP, H/9, ERA, and IP. DeGrom is also among the top 10 in ERA, WHIP, H/9, K/9, and SO. Ultimately, deGrom should be the favorite due to his far superior ERA and SO rate. Advanced metrics also bode well for deGrom, as his ERA+ and FIP (pitcher's effectiveness at preventing HR, BB, HBP, and causing SO) are both better than Nola's. Pitching for a potential playoff team could sway some voters Nola's way. However, based strictly based off merit, deGrom is a narrow winner.
NL Rookie of the Year: Brian Anderson
Anderson is having a very solid rookie year. That being said, if Juan Soto was called up earlier in the season, he would be the runaway winner. In only 51 games, Soto has hit nine homers while knocking in 28 runs. He is currently hitting .301 and has an impressive .517 SLG.
However, Anderson should win the Rookie of the Year. In 97 games for the Miami Marlins, Anderson has eight home runs and 49 RBI. His .288 BA is a great mark for a rookie (as is his .429 slugging percentage). Anderson has added 23 doubles as well -- showing power that will likely result in more dingers as his career progresses. Soto looks like a future MVP candidate, but Anderson will deservedly win the NL ROY.
NL Manager of the Year: Gabe Kapler
Just like the American League, the National League Manager of the Year will be a first-year coach. Kapler (Phillies) and Brian Snitker (Braves) are the leading candidates heading into the second half.
The Braves have fast-tracked their potential, and are a legitimate threat in the NL. The Phillies have been the surprise of baseball. They're currently in a good position to make a run at the postseason. This could go either way, but Kapler will take home Manager of the Year honors for guiding the Phillies back to the postseason.
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